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I'm using Windows XP and I hate the long start up time when I shut down and then turn on my laptop. However if I hibernate instead of shutting down it starts up much faster. Are there any harmful effects / disadvantages if I always hibernate whenever I'm done for the day instead of shutting down?

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There is nothing wrong with Hibernating, it is an option in windows for all of the reasons you have just listed! I have been using it for years.

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Hibernation is a good thing, as long as you have the disk space to accomodate for the hiberfil.sys that gets created in the process. You can find it in the root of your C: drive if you are curious how big it is. You will need to have all hidden and system files visible.

Shutting down every now and again and restarting is still recommended. Not only will it allow those pesky (but required) updates to be installed, but will keep your system in tip top condition.

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+1 for mentioning updates. –  Dan McGrath Feb 14 '10 at 17:57
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Under XP, the OS will slow down over time, and eventually get unstable, but that can take upwards of a week depending on how much you use your OS. Reboot every so often, there's no real harm in hibernating over short periods. In a laptop, most components should be built with hibernation in mind, and HDD space is cheap, so the hibernation file shouldn't be a big deal (If it is, it's 2010! Get an external HDD, 1.5TB is the best GB/$ right now, and they're pretty cheap!)

In Vista/Win7, I can't honestly reccomend shutting down unless you have a good reason.

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FWIW, in my case, your "upwards of a week" with Windows XP was actually no notable instabilities with at least 8 hours a day of use every workday, and rebooting every few months to install Windows updates. –  Brooks Moses Mar 18 '10 at 18:42
    
@Brooks; Were you open/closing a lot of windows? XP had a known bug with window handles, it'd eventually run out and screw up the world. I could never keep an XP machine stable for more than a week or so, alas. –  Phoshi Mar 18 '10 at 19:20
    
Huh -- I guess I wasn't; I do all my browsing in tabs, and mostly keep programs open. I did have problems every so often that looked like my email program was running out of handles for its child windows, but that got fixed if I closed and reopened it. –  Brooks Moses Mar 18 '10 at 20:18
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In theory hibernation dumps the memory to the drive and allows "almost instant" powerup. I personally don't care for it. It is aimed primarily at laptops and will create a file that is the size of your physical memory that you cant delete.

I say if you arent having any problems with it and like what it does keep using it.

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